Steve Kordek was an unsung revolutionary of 20th century America. His chosen field was notwarfare or politics, sport or art.
He put the flipper on the pinball machine – and in doing so, turned an entertaining game of chance into an even more addictive game of skill. To this day, even though pinball has been largely supplanted by electronic games, Chicago remains the centre of the industry. Kordek spent more than six decades in the business there before he retired in 1999, along the way designing more than 100 games for the major manufacturers Genco, Bally and Williams.
His start was almost fortuitous. It was the Depression and Kordek was in distant Idaho, working as a forest ranger in a New Deal programme. But he couldn't stay away from his native Chicago. One day in 1937, searching for work, he stepped into a factory entrance to shelter from the rain, and a woman inside asked him if he was looking for a job.
The factory happened to be that of Genco, and Kordek was taken on. First he worked as a solderer, then on the walkie-talkies the company produced during the Second World War, but his engineering and design talents were quickly noticed. Three years after war's end, he came up with the invention that changed pinball history.
It was called Triple Action, inspired by Humpty Dumpty, a 1947 machine from Gottlieb, one of Genco's competitors, that featured six weak flippers in the upper part of the board. On Triple Action Kordek installed a single pair of strong flippers at the bottom that sent balls fizzing back to the top of the board. In those first models, the flippers faced outward, not inward as today, but America was hooked.
Years later, he insisted the change was simply to cut costs. "I just figured – what the hell – two flippers on a game was enough," he told the ChicagoTribune in 2009. But the innovation had turned a game of simple chance, that traced its origins to the bagatelle played by 18th century French aristocrats, into one that required real dexterity and timing to secure the prize of a free extra game.
The earlier versions of pinball, in which a player rolled balls at random into holes worth varying numbers of points, were highly popular in the Depression. In those days though, the game was generally regarded as a form of gambling, in which a player had no more control of the ball than of cards dealt him at a poker table. For long periods, pinball was banned in New York and other cities; that it originated in Chicago, whose reputation in the 1920s and 1930s was not the most salubrious, didn't help either.
Kordek's pair of flippers opened the way for new generations of games, with countless new features, including a couple he also pioneered in the early 1960s, the swinging target and multi-ball play. Not only in the US but around the world, the next two decades were mechanical pinball's golden age, before the emergence of video games, Playstations and the rest. In the cafés of Paris, a pinball table became virtually de rigueur. To this day, in unwitting homage to Kordek, the game in France is known as "le flipper".
His own recipe for a successful game, however, was simple. "First, the pictures on the back glass of the game," he explained to the Tribune. "Second, if what a player sees on the play field is different, that's a success. And when the features are so exciting he wants to put more money in it, you've got him."
Steven Frank Kordek, pinball inventor: born Chicago 26 December 1911; married 1941 Harriet Pieniazek (two sons, two daughters); died Park Ridge, Illinois 19 February 2012.